‘It could have been any one of us’: Setting the record straight on Substance Use Disorder in the wake of Ottawa overdose deaths

As 25-year-old Corinne Rose made her way into the Pinecrest Remembrance Chapel, she felt her head beginning to spin. For her and many others that day, a dark cloud hung low overhead despite the crisp spring sunshine outside. Corinne joined the throng of mourners in the chapel, taking her seat to say goodbye to a close friend who lost his life at the end of March after succumbing to a fatal overdose from fentanyl-laced cocaine.

March went out like a rabid lion in Ottawa, the month’s end bringing with it a hailstorm of overdose deaths. Apart from Corinne’s friend, four others died that same week after experiencing fatal overdoses from street drugs laced with Fentanyl and Carfentanyl.

Corinne says she had heard her friend was sober a few weeks before the news came out, which made the news even more shocking. As someone recovering from a substance use disorder herself, Corinne felt an inexplicable wave of guilt rising in her chest. She has been clean for almost eight months. She was able to ‘get out.’ Some hadn’t been so lucky.

“When I knew him he was so happy and full of life. When we talked, he came alive in such a special way,” she says. “It was very sad, especially to realize that it could have been any one of us who are facing addiction.”

Some, however, have other opinions on the matter. Critics flocked to the comment sections of news articles covering the overdoses, eager to share their thoughts on why we shouldn’t feel sympathy when someone with a substance use disorder dies from an overdose.

I had the opportunity to speak with Corinne about her long and tangled history with Substance Use Disorder and some of the myths and stereotypes that surround it.

“Its so important for me to break the stigma around it and start the conversation,” she says. “And to encourage people like me who feel they don’t fit into the typical parameters of what an ‘addict’ should be, to be able to reach out for help.”

Keep reading to find out what Corinne had to say in our Q&A:

Q: Tell me a little bit about your history with substance use.

A: When I was 15 or 16 I got mixed up with the wrong crowd. It sounds cliché, but it’s so true. I got into MDMA, then cocaine in 2010, and ecstasy really heavy in 2011. I was doing it every day for a long time. I quit on June 22, 2011 and didn’t touch the substances until I relapsed in 2016, exactly a month shy of 5 years clean.

I was at a party and was offered some MDMA and Ketamine. I took the MDMA for 3 straight days. After that I thought about the Ketamine, but I was afraid to touch it because I had no idea what it would do. Eventually, as anyone with a substance use disorder does, I decided “fuck it, lets do it. Anything is better than this sadness ”

It hit. Hard. And that was it. That’s what really started the downward spiral because I was hooked right away. Through the summer of 2016, I dabbled with MDMA and Ketamine off and on, but at the end of summer I managed to kick the habit again.

In the spring of 2017 I relapsed again. After that I was high every single day for hours a day. I used at work, I used when I was alone. It was a mess.

It’s important to note that through it all I was very good at hiding my struggle from my mom and step-dad until I finally sat and told them the truth. I think they suspected something was off, but I always told them I was just sick or just feeling really sad.

I did my very best to keep it a secret and make sure no one knew. It was extremely unfair of me and I should have sat down and told them the truth a very long time ago. I think I would have saved them a lot of stress and heartache and given me access to help way sooner.

Instagram Photos / Corinne Rose
Infographic by Victoria St. Michael

In March of 2018 I got clean and sober for 84 days. I was so proud of myself, but after a messy break-up I got into some MDMA, where I was constantly re-dosing for 3 days straight.

When that ran out, I found a Ketamine dealer in the city and I was spending an unbelievable amount every week. I stopped going out, I stopped seeing friends. Once the habit became too expensive I turned to cocaine. Eventually I ended up taking way too much, mixed with MDMA and mushrooms, and I was exhibiting signs of an overdose. That was on August 11, 2018.

I’m lucky to be alive, say my doctors. I think that was when the decision to quit doing hard drugs really happened. But because it was a habit I wasn’t ready to give up yet, on the 15th I told my boyfriend that “me and drugs were forever.”

Then on the 18th I had a moment of fear that I wouldn’t make it through the night. I decided to stop for good, and spent the night talking to my boyfriend and a friend, absolutely losing my mind. I’ve honestly never been more afraid in my life. I was hallucinating bugs crawling all over me, I was sweating and shaking. I would alternate between crying and screaming into a pillow saying “I can’t do this” over and over again.

I spent days following the withdrawal unable to eat or drink more than a couple bites and a few sips of Gatorade or water.

But I had to stop. My doctors were constantly worried the next call would be a call saying I’d died, my family was worried sick but there was nothing they could do because I was 24 and I was living on my own. I was sleeping an average of two hours per night. I lost 30 lbs in two months and I was wasting away. I was literally dying and no one knew how to help me because if they tried I would just cut them off and go on another bender.

It was a horrible cycle. But today, April 8th, 2019, I am 233 days clean from hard substances and 177 days completely sober. I am getting healthier every day and I am going back to school to finish my degree. I am officially in remission and I am so, so lucky.

Q: What was the thing that made you commit to making a change in your life for good?

A: If it wasn’t for my support system I would never have made it as far as I have. Once I did [tell my parents] things made a lot more sense and I had their full support in getting clean and sober. We celebrate every milestone and they tell me how proud of me they are all the time.

I’m also extremely lucky to have a circle of friends who encourage me to do better and keep going on the right track. My boyfriend is also one of those people. He reminds me how proud of me he is every single day and he celebrates my milestones with me and my circle of friends as well.

Someone I love more than anything is struggling with addiction, as well, and I blame myself for a lot of it. It might not make sense because we all make our own choices, but I hope with everything I have that seeing me and seeing how worth it sobriety is will help them remember why they helped me get sober in the first place.

Q: What is the biggest difference you’ve noticed about yourself since getting clean?

A: I’m not chasing the need to feel alive. Before, I did the drugs a lot because I felt empty and I’d feel something else when I was using.

But now I’m finding that other things make me feel that way. Driving with the windows down to loud music in the summer, going to concerts and experiencing live music, running around in the rain. It’s also very cliché, but it’s such an important thing to me because I needed to feel it for so long.

Q: What is the most difficult thing about living a day in the life of a recovering addict?

A: The fear that one day I won’t be strong enough to say no.

Usually a relapse starts way before the physical relapse. But I have so many complicated cycles of emotion – mania and depression – that it’s hard to tell. When I’m manic, I’m at risk of an impulse decision because it just sounds like it’ll make me feel even better, but with depression it’s the fear that one day it will be too much and I need to get away.

But knowing that no matter what happens, my support system will be there to love me through it and help me get back on track helps a lot.

Q: What do you think are some of the most harmful misconceptions and myths surrounding addiction?

A: First, that only the homeless or disadvantaged can be addicts. People from good families with happy childhoods and happy lives can be addicts. People who look happy and healthy can be addicts. People who are successful can be addicts. I read a study that said that an estimated 10 per cent of healthcare professionals abuse drugs, and that doctors are more likely to abuse prescription drugs than their patients.

Another one is that a hard substance addict can get clean and sober while still consuming alcohol. Alcohol is the most legal and accessible drug and it destroys more lives than any other. It is absolutely a drug, by definition.

The mentality that my dealer has good, clean stuff” is also dangerous. People who purchase from someone regularly, often won’t test their drugs. They feel safe using alone. According to a psych doctor at the Royal Ottawa, almost all cocaine in the city has been cut with Fentanyl. I believe there was a bulletin released by the Ottawa Police about it to healthcare professionals following the overdose deaths.

That relapse happens right away when someone isn’t feeling good. Relapse can start weeks or months before a physical relapse. If someone is suffering or feeling off, it’s so important to have a safe person to talk to and a plan in place to prevent that.

That it is easy to love an addict. It isn’t. It’s messy, it’s scary, and it’s hard. But it is SO important for this person’s survival to know they are loved through hell and high water. That they will be loved and supported through the withdrawal and the scary parts as well as the good days.

Victoria St. Michael Photo

Q: What is the hardest thing about losing someone to addiction in particular?

A: Personally, I think its because a part of me feels like I got out and I didn’t do enough to help those I care about who didn’t.

[The funeral] was really hard. That was my second friend who has lost their life to Fentanyl. In both cases I feel like I should have tried harder. I should have been there more. I should have sent the text I typed out but shrugged off and didn’t send. I know these are things I am unable to change and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

But what if it had?

Q: Some people say they don’t feel sympathy for those who die from overdoses because “they do it to themselves.” How would you respond to that?

A: Addiction might start with a choice to do the drugs once or twice, or a handful of times, but once it’s started it’s an absolute monster and an uphill battle.

It’s not as easy as just quitting. It is a very long and messy process. The withdrawal is a nightmare. The vomiting, shaking, hallucinations that sometimes go with it, the cold sweats and hot flashes, the feeling that it will never end…

Not only that, but the adjustment period of learning to live without the ability to escape from trauma and mental health struggles is a scary thing. Adjusting to “real life” after living for years or months with a routine that consists of escape is very hard.

What about people who are addicted to work and work themselves to death, whether it’s suicide or pushing themselves until they can’t anymore? Or people who drink themselves to death? Addiction comes in many forms, not only substance abuse. It is important to remember that and not shame people who are fighting a very scary battle.

Q: What advice would you give to someone currently struggling with a substance use disorder?

A: So many people feel like they’re a lost cause and sobriety is too hard or isn’t worth it. It is so worth it. If you’re reading this and you feel this way please know you are worthy of recovery. You deserve to live. You are so, so loved.

Addiction is a relapsing illness. This doesn’t mean the progress was wasted or for nothing. If it’s time to restart the count, that’s okay. You are still worthy of recovery and survival.

A helpful resource I use is an app called I Am Sober. It helps keep track of how much I’ve saved time and money-wise, and it sends me reminders when I reach a milestone. I recommend it for anyone who is starting – or continuing – their journey into recovery.

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